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In 2013, during a conference held by Zaytuna College, Anse Dr Tamara Gray, founder of Rabata organization, delivered a lecture titled “Lean In: Our Feminist Manifesto.” In her talk, she argued that Muslims were “plagued” by the colonial period, as it was detrimental to the status of the Muslim woman. In pre-colonial West Africa, she recollects, women were active participants in education, economy and Islamic scholarship. In those times, a woman without a craft or trade or who depended on her husband was “not only rare but was regarded with contempt.”
Once upon a time, Muslim women were held in the highest regard in predominantly Muslim societies. They benefitted from Islam and were social activists and Islamic scholars. Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist, wrote a book titled The Forgotten Queens of Islam, which studies 15 centuries of Islamic history. She wrote about 15 Muslim queens – their ascension to the throne, their governance, power and most importantly, how their forgotten regimes have shaped the way Islam is understood and practised today. Dr Gray cited several female Muslim leaders – including Queen Amina of Zaria in northern Nigeria and Razia Sultan of India – to support her thesis that before colonization, women played active roles in the administrative systems used to uphold the Muslim nation. She said:
“When Europe ruled the Muslims, they brought with them attitudes towards women and a woman’s role that began to change the attitudes of Muslims themselves. For some, women simply ceased to be recorded as educated. If we go back to West Africa again, families resisted sending their daughters to the Western colonial – and of course, Christian – schools. Some still educated their daughters in the Islamic system and Islamic scholarship, but they were still recorded as illiterate […] However, the focus of education did change and so women were losing their public presence, which had been the norm of their Islamic life in the pre-colonial period. The period between the 16th and 20th Centuries is the lowest period of Islamic education for women in our history.”
There is much to be said about women and Islam in Africa and the place of the Muslim woman in Islamic societies. In Northern Nigeria, centuries ago, Muslim women were leading experts in Islamic theology; Ruqayya Fallatiyya, for example, is believed to have written Littafin Qawa’idi, which is usually the first go-to book for teaching Islam in the traditional Islamic educational system (karatun allo). This was in 16th or 17th Century northern Nigeria, yet the same region that contributed to her scholarship ages ago does not give contemporary Muslim women the same opportunities today. The reality of Muslim women today is so far-fetched from what Islam says it should be that Dr Gray asserts that it would not be recognized by Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W).
Where the religion advises fairness, the Muslim world is replete with ultra-conservative cultures which traditions are sometimes unkind to women. Where Islam grants a woman autonomy and encourages her education, ultra-conservative culture declares that she should be at home, learning to cook for the man that she will inevitably marry. Where Islam tells the husband to treat his wife with kindness and affection – “And live with them in kindness” (Qur’an 4:19) – certain Muslim communities in northern Nigeria preach haƙuri (patience) to the bride, telling her to accept injustice because it is believed that her Jannah (paradise) is under her husband’s feet. It is also common, in such communities, to find a woman being thrown out of her marital home after her husband divorces her, even though the Qur’an has decreed that the husband should still provide her with shelter, clothing and sustenance for the following three months.
Muslim communities must practice the teachings of Islam. Placing Islam above ultra-conservative culture in such communities will only yield good results. Women, for example, won’t endure as much abuse in their marital homes; their scholarships will be encouraged; their daughters will have caretakers even after being orphaned. Most importantly, if we Muslims prioritize our women and encourage them to make significant contributions to our societies, the rest of the world will, too. And finally, our women will no longer be tagged as “oppressed”. It all begins at home.